Intelligence Is Not a Quotient

Posted on December 22, 2012 in Bible and Theology, Education, Mind and Brain, Philosophy of Science, Politics and Ethics

Can your intelligence be reduced to a number on a linear scale?  That would be highly misleading, a research study concluded.

Neuroscientists from the University of Western Ontario conducted the “largest online intelligence study on record,” including over 100,000 participants joining in a suite of 12 cognitive tests on their computers.  In their press release, “Western-led research debunks the IQ myth,” a short video clip explains how the results contradict the idea that human beings can be ranked based on a single number – one single factor or property on a linear scale – that qualifies as “intelligence.”

Intelligence is made up of several parts, Adrian Owen of The Brain and Mind Institute explains on a short video clip in the press release.  John Hampshire of the Institute described how the researchers imaged the brains of some participants with MRI while they completed the 12-item test.  Different parts of the brain lit up when participants performed tests of “memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities.”  Owen claims that they’ve “shown categorically that you cannot sum up the difference between people in terms of one number.

The experiments did seem to reduce intelligence to three components, “short-term memory, reasoning and a verbal component.”  If scoring intelligence is desirable, there will need to be new methods to assess it.  Further complicating any results are considerations of age, gender and familiarity with computer games.  Even lifestyle choices like smoking can influence the results, they found.

If you want to try your mind on their latest version of the intelligence test, go to “The IQ Challenge” on Cambridge Brain Sciences.

Actually, our brain similarities may be more profound than the differences.  Science Daily discussed the way the brain can manage categorizing thousands of objects.  There’s not one spot for each category, authors at UC Berkeley found.  “The results demonstrate that the brain efficiently represents the diversity of categories in a compact space. Instead of having a distinct brain area devoted to each category, as previous work had identified, for some but not all types of stimuli, the researchers uncovered that brain activity is organized by the relationship between categories.”  You don’t even have to consciously do the sorting; your brain is equipped to do that automatically.  In Nature last month, Phillip Ball further reported research that shows that the brain’s reading centers are culturally universal.  His article said, “Whether you are reading in Chinese or French, the same brain areas light up.”

Did you take an IQ test in school?  Sorry to deflate your pride if you scored well, but the number is meaningless.  Think about it.  Intelligence is a composite skill; you can be good at verbal, but poor at short-term memory.  You can be good at computation or planning, but weak in expressing yourself.  You might be smarter (or dumber) than you think, depending on what is being tested.  Think of an auto mechanic who would be all thumbs on a computer, but has tacit knowledge (savvy) looking under the hood of a car that would leave the computer geek baffled.  Is it fair to rank either of them on the same linear scale?

Then there are all the factors that might influence the score when taking the test: how hungry you are, your age, your sex, your mood, what distractions are around, your degree of education.  How can anyone consider IQ as “the number” that characterizes their intelligence?  And who knows the extent to which these skills can vary with practice?  Your intelligence is not a fixed quantity; it can grow.  Even if it were confirmed that capacities for subsections of intelligence are fixed (unlikely), better a 5-gallon bucket that’s full than a 10-gallon bucket that’s one-quarter full.

Critics of intelligence tests have often pointed to cultural or racist factors in standardized tests, arguing that the tests are designed to make certain ethnic groups score low.  That criticism remains valid, but this study goes further.  It shows that it’s not even possible in principle to describe intelligence by a single number.

Let’s say that further research would allow these scientists to create a composite score: a score for short-term memory, a score for reasoning, and a score for verbal skills.  Our human tendency would be to combine those somehow into an overall score–another IQ fallacy.  Who would have the omniscience to know what weight to assign to each skill?  The result would be a value judgment based on someone’s subjective opinion.  And how do they know that there are only three basic skills?  What other skills are being overlooked, merged, or deemed unimportant?

We all have an intuitive notion that some students are smarter than others.  Some race out the door after 20 minutes on a math test while others sweat for the whole allotted time.  Some contestants on Jeopardy can recall answers on a vast spread of topics instantly, but can’t learn to sing.  The fallacy would be to rank these people on a linear scale; on other tests, they might score low.

The best way to think of intelligence is to realize everyone is a unique blend of gifts, talents, and abilities.  Every human is as unique as a snowflake.  It takes a diverse collection of individuals to make the world run.  Don’t feel bad if you’re the one sweating the math test; maybe you have a strong E.Q. (empathy quotient), an ability to comfort those in need.  Who could say that is less valuable?  In St. Paul’s analogy of the church as the body of Christ (I Cor. 12), he explains how God assigns spiritual gifts for the good of the whole.  The foot is not more important than the hand; every part is essential.

Bible believers can take reassurance that God does not rank us by intelligence.  We’re so far beneaith his standards, we’re all equally dumb.  Here’s the test He wants everyone to pass: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

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